From Waffle House worker to Waffle Street author: UNC graduate James Adam writes about his experience

After earning an MBA in finance from UNC, James Adams went to work as a product manager in a hedge fund.

And after two years spent in the eye of the financial hurricane that was the 2008 meltdown, he said the pink slip he received in 2009 came as somewhat of a relief.

“There is some kind of an emotional trauma when you’ve got to tell these people you’ve lost billions of dollars from their pensions,” Adams said. “After that, I needed to clear my head and take a step back from finance.”

After being rejected three times for a job at McDonald’s, he ended up working the graveyard shift at his local Waffle House.

So he decided to write about it.

“Anytime I wasn’t taking someone’s order, I was just taking little notes of what happened in the restaurant, and conversations people had,” Adams said.

If it started as a catharsis, it evolved into something else.

“At the same time, I was reading a lot of books and websites to figure out what I really believed about how the market works,” Adams said. “It eventually grew into economic essays about banking and money, which provided the skeleton on which was layered Waffle House stories.”

This is how the book “Waffle Street” was born.

As challenging — and enlightening — as this experience has been, Adams said he did not come out of it filled with bitterness, nor did he lose faith in the capitalist system.

At the end of his book, he compiled his nine “Articles of Economic Faith,” one of which recognizes capitalism as a “fundamentally moral system of production arrangements.”

“If you go back to the origin of capitalism, with Adam Smith and the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, both saw capitalism as a mean of increasing living standards for the people,” he said.

Back in 2010, his publisher suggested to him that Autumn McAlpin, a screenwriter, producer and director, write a screenplay for “Waffle Street.”

This kickstarted the movie project.

“I thought it was a perfect title for a movie,” McAlpin said. “It was relevant, too — the country was going through an economic crash and a depression. I knew there would be many people who could relate.”

McAlpin produced it herself in collaboration with other producers. Ian and Eshom Nelms were the co-writers and directors.

“We really responded to his memoir, and he was incredibly helpful in helping us construct the script,” Nelms said. “He gave us priceless anecdotes and insight on his experience and personal life during that period.”

Adams was involved from start to finish.

“I would send several drafts to him, and he would weigh in,” McAlpin said. “He really helped draft a lot of the dialogues, without Jimmy there would be no movie.”

James Lafferty — best known his role as one of the Scott brothers in “One Tree Hill” — was cast to play Adams in the movie.

“The directors have worked with him on a prior film,” McAlpin said. “We thought he could pull off the complexity of the character.”

The movie, which took five years to make, also stars Danny Glover and Julie Gonzalo. It was released last year in September, and it won the Best Narrative Film at the 2015 Hollywood Film Festival.

Adams spent six months working at Waffle House and 10 months writing his book. He is now back working in finance, but he said his work has changed significantly.

“He went back into the financial services industry and decided to attack the problem at its root, by helping those who normally wouldn’t be able to afford professional financial consulting,” Nelms said.

“It’s the idea of attacking the problem at its base. That’s the biggest lesson we’ve taken from the experience.”

@audleynaud

arts@dailytarheel.com

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